2022 Best in Performance – Cameron Wilson, Sky Christoph, Liam Connolly, Olivia Johnson
O Great Mullein!
Video – spoken word, music, and dance
‘O Great Mullein’ is an attempt to see the world from the point of view of a Great Mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) by means of an interdisciplinary performance involving spoken word, three dancers, and six musicians. The activity and energy levels of the dance and music follow the two year life cycle of Mullein – unfurling in the first spring, resting in the winters, sending up a ten foot flowering stalk in the second spring, and finally standing proud for a full year after death. The project includes grounding from both Western science and Indigenous science, especially traditional Anishinaabe plant knowledge.
‘O Great Mullein!’ is an attempt to see the world from the point of view of a Great Mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) by means of an interdisciplinary performance involving spoken word, movement, and sound-making. The project includes grounding from both Western science and Inidgenous science, especially traditional Anishinaabe plant knowledge (see sources below). One major difference between these two worldviews is that Indigenous science does not use data to control the forces of nature as specimens, but instead gives all beings personhood and seeks to learn from and accommodate non-humans. A specific teaching of Inidgenous science we focused on is to emphasize learning directly from plants through personal experience using all physical and spiritual senses. This piece would not have been manifested if I only read about Mullein in a book – I regularly walked by a specific Mullein plant, felt her soft leaves, smelled her yellow flowers, and saw her in my dreams. When we performed the piece, we had a table at the entrance with signs asking audience members to acquaint themselves with the Mullein by feeling the leaves as they walked in and read about the traditional medicinal uses and Mullein’s ecological niche as a naturalized non-native plant.
Alongside more traditional Indigenous scientific grounding, we also included more Western scientific aspects. The form of the entire piece is based on the two-year life cycle of the Mullein – starting as a seed in the Winter, spreading out into a basal rosette of leaves in the first spring, resting in the second winter, sending up a ten foot stalk with seeds and flowers in the second spring, releasing upwards of 180,000 seeds in the fall, and finally standing proudly in place for one year after death. A performer in the center personifies Mullein, hidden under fabric at the beginning and eventually raising an actual Mullein stalk seventeen feet into the air.
The activity and energy levels of the dance and music follow the energy cycles of Mullein, resting in the winter, and unfurling in the spring and summer. Simple musical cells of repeating rhythms are passed between the bassoon and clarinet, while being grounded in a groove by the vibraphone and synthesizer. These musical gestures are built upon additively over the course of several minutes in each section that approaches a peak in Spring, and reduced steadily when Winter approaches. This invokes Mullein’s symmetrical characteristics, such as the basal rosette of leaves, leaf venation, and her slow, singular movement towards the sky. Two other percussionists offer sounds that mimic Mullein’s environment – wind chimes, rain stick, amplified plant material, birds eating and spreading the seeds – a complex drama of relationships.
The intention of this project is to amplify Indigenous ways of knowing and become closer to a very special plant through a collaborative art process. It’s my belief that becoming closer with our communities and the natural world can only be done by merging scientific reasoning and the spiritual practice of artistic storytelling.
- ‘Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to do is Ask’ by Mary Siisip Geniusz
- ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- Worldwide Indigenous Science Network
Sky Christoph – Spoken word, creative direction
Cameron Wilson – Composition, percussion, creative direction
Olivia Johnson – Lead choreographer, movement
Ari Stadler – Movement
Sasha Yakovenko – Movement
Bryce Richardson – Bassoon
Jane Koelsch – Clarinet
Karina Howey – Synthesizer, percussion
Liam Connolly – Amplified Mullein leaf, percussion
Chris Sies – Plant
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) – herself
Nolan Rector-Brooks – Live Audio
Will Kelley and Jonathan Rickard – Lighting
Reed Puleo – Camera